Voters mad about NSA spying face uphill battle
Charlotte Scot isn't one to take things lying down — like the time President George W. Bush was re-elected and she moved to Canada in protest.
So when the 66-year-old artist from Old Lyme, Conn., heard that major telecommunications providers have been turning over data about every Americans' phone calls to the government since 2006, Scot demanded that her own phone company tell her what, if anything, it had shared about her.
She soon received a non-response from an unnamed customer service representative informing her how to opt out of its marketing program, which only made Scot angrier.
"Dear Anonymous," Scot fired back in an email, "I have always opted out of all advertising emails. ... However, my question was not about advertising. It was about what information AT&T turns over to the federal government and NSA. I appreciate an answer to this question."
Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about government invasion of privacy while investigating terrorism, and some ordinary citizens are finding ways to push back. They are signing online petitions and threatening lawsuits. Like Scot, some are pressing their providers to be upfront when data is shared with the government, which federal law allows as long as the person isn't being investigated under an active court order.
The question is whether these anti-surveillance voters will be successful in creating a broader populist movement. Many lawmakers have defended the NSA surveillance program — a program Congress itself reviewed and approved in secret.
And unlike the anti-war effort that rallied Democrats during the Bush administration, and the tea party movement that galvanized conservatives in President Barack Obama's first term, government surveillance opponents tend to straddle party lines. The cause appeals to libertarian Republicans who don't like big government and progressive liberals like Scot who do but favor civil liberties. Together, these voters would have little in common otherwise.
Another complication is the potential of another terrorist attack. One spectacular act and public opinion could flip, much as it did after 9/11, back to favoring government surveillance. Politicians know this, with many of them opting to blast the Obama administration for not being more transparent but most opposing an end to broad surveillance powers.
"If in fact something happens, you're basically putting yourself in a position to look like you didn't do something when you should have. And that's got to be in the back of their head," said Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group in Alexandria, Va., a Republican survey research and strategy company.
That leaves voter-activists like Scot with little to work with, even with midterm elections next year that expose one-third of the Senate and every member of the House.
"I don't believe it's going to be a driving issue" in the upcoming elections, Goeas added. "It's got to be the total picture" on national security that appeals to voters.
At issue is whether the government overstepped its bounds when it began collecting and searching the phone and Internet records of Americans to gather information on suspected terrorists overseas. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released late last month found that Americans are divided over whether they support the surveillance programs revealed earlier this year, but most Americans — 57 percent — still say it's more important for the government to investigate terrorism than to put privacy first.
Like their constituents, lawmakers too are divided. Last month, a House proposal that essentially would have made the NSA phone collection program illegal failed in a 217-205 vote that didn't fall along party lines. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California were among the 217 who voted to spare the program.
In the Senate, a small group of lawmakers — namely Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. — is taking a stronger line in favor of civil liberties. But progress has been slow, with few co-sponsors joining their legislative proposals to limit NSA spying powers. Meanwhile, such influential senators as Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have defended the program and said Edward Snowden, who leaked details of the NSA programs, is guilty of treason.
Doug Hattaway, a Washington-based Democratic strategist, said the reluctance by most lawmakers to take sides isn't surprising, considering that most Americans say they want both security and privacy.
"I don't see Democrats benefiting from joining forces with libertarians," he said. "If voters are looking for balance, I wouldn't hop on the bandwagon with Rand Paul."
Another challenge for surveillance foes is that industry isn't exactly fighting back. Technology and phone companies often say they are prohibited from divulging details about government surveillance requests, but that's only partially true. Federal law prohibits alerting customers when they are surveillance subjects as long as a court order remains in effect. But not all gag orders last forever.
So when AT&T wouldn't tell Scot whether her information had ever been shared with the government, chances are that's because it didn't want to — not because it couldn't.
AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris declined to comment on Scot's case in particular or matters of national security. "We value our customers' privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects," he said.
Meanwhile, Scot says she can't understand why other customers are not just as angry. She's now looking to switch providers, and has downloaded a mobile application called Seecyrpt that offers encrypted phone calls for $3 a month. But she knows it's unlikely that a majority of Americans will follow her lead.
"I'm just one of these people who gets riled about things," she said. "People are like sheep."